Managing Project ‘Social Risk’


Are you tired of overruns, missed milestones and costly failures? During my years as a NASA program director (and later as a consultant), the people with whom I worked sure were. The issue is the tension between cost/cost growth and risk reduction. As someone once said to me, “We will begin to lower costs when we give project managers medals for cheap failures.”

Space projects have reliable processes for managing technical and programmatic risk in the form of risk matrices and earned value management. Unfortunately, until recently at NASA, projects ignored the more dangerous form of risk, the risk of flawed “team social contexts.”

My inquiry into this generally unnoticed form of risk began 30 years ago when my friend and NASA scientist John Mather remarked, “Charlie, I believe that half of a project’s cost is socially determined.” At the time, he was referring to the Cosmic Background Explorer, the mission for which he earned a Nobel Prize in physics.

Actually, I did not give this the attention it deserved until the Hubble Space Telescope’s Failure Review Board named “leadership failure” as the root cause of the flawed mirror. For the eight years preceding the failure, I was NASA’s director of astrophysics and leader of the Hubble development team. This “leadership failure” was mine. Leadership is a social ability, not a technical ability. “Social risk” is real.

After I assembled the space mission to repair Hubble, I focused on the connection between team social conditions and team performance. The University of Colorado Business School provided me an appointment as a “professor of leadership.” I taught classes to undergraduates and MBA students and carefully studied the root causes of space and other major accidents. In every case, some form of teamwork-limiting social shortfall was the cause.

After a favorable review of my course by the corporate CEOs, including Craig Weatherup of Pepsi, I formed a team-building company called 4-D Systems, working first with the accounting industry and then with aerospace proposal teams. Clients reported remarkable results, including improved morale and proposal wins. Apparently, my technical background and accomplishments as a NASA executive enabled me to bridge the parallel universes of technical and social realms.

After 10 years of experimentation with a broad set of teams, here are some things we learned:

  • The appropriate name for what we need to measure and manage is “team social context.” Context powerfully drives behaviors, and vice versa.
  • The most powerful way to develop individual leadership ability (which is where we started) is in a group using team social context to stimulate behavioral improvement.
  • Eight team behavioral norms that we can measure and reliably improve powerfully drive team performance. For example, the first behavior we assess is “Expressing Authentic Appreciation.” Many technical people are surprised to learn how essential it is for all of us to feel appreciated. We developed an integrated suite of assessments, workshops and coaching strategies that all address these eight core behaviors.

Ed Hoffman, the director of NASA’s Academy of Program/Project and Engineering Leadership (APPEL), told me that NASA formed his office in the aftermath of the Challenger explosion to prevent future space mishaps. I explained that he needed to manage the social context in project teams and that we had the proven tools to do this. Moreover, conventional risk management processes do not even consider team social context, much less manage it. He was skeptical about adoption of “soft-side” development by NASA project teams. Being project-centric thinkers, we wrote requirements for the adoption of social context management processes by NASA project teams. Here are the requirements and how we meet them.

  • Requirement 1: The core construct must be logical and durable. Technical teams hate “touchy-feely.” We use a coordinate system built on Jung’s work in 1905 and Cartesian coordinates from the 17th century to measure and manage team social context. This system aligns our processes, including assessments, workshops, coaching and the “Context Shifting Worksheet.” It also analyzes, or simplifies, the core aspects of teams and leaders into four dimensions: 1) Cultivating (caring about people); 2) Including (giving others a sense of belonging); 3) Visioning (providing realistic and hopeful futures); and 4) Directing (clarifying expectations with the resources people need to succeed). Each addresses a deep and fundamental human need. Our work does not appear “touchy-feely.”
  • Requirement 2: Team and individual behavior assessments must be fast and actionable. Our 15-minute online assessments measure behaviors against defined standards, thus mitigating “normalization of deviance,” a root cause of the Challenger explosion. Team leaders use their assessment reports to conduct structured dialogues with team members, including assigning action items to enhance team performance.
  • Requirement 3: Assessment data must be quantitative, including benchmarking. We assign numbers to behavior, generating an average estimated team efficiency of, say 78 percent. Is this a good score? We benchmark teams against peers. A score of 78 percent places the team in the middle of the “above average” quintile. Is this rank sufficient? That is the team leader’s decision. How important is risk mitigation? How severe are the consequences of failure?
  • Requirement 4: Stressed people must want to use the development processes. Since spring 2003, NASA project, engineering and management teams voluntarily participated in over 1,200 team development assessments, 12,000 coaching sessions, 7,000 workshop person-days and 5,000 individual development assessments. This participation greatly exceeded expectations.
  • Requirement 5: Participants need results that justify their time off the job. We organized the 198 NASA teams with multiple assessments into quintiles depending on their first team assessment score. Average team performance increased with every 15-minute team reassessment. Team leaders consistently report high correlation of assessment scores with team performance and stakeholder perceptions.

Again, are you tired of overruns, missed milestones and costly failures? Begin managing social risk along with technical and programmatic risk.


Charles Pellerin is founder of 4-D Systems, former director of astrophysics for NASA and author of “How NASA Builds Teams” (Wiley, 2009).